Stage 3 vs. Stage 4 Lung Cancer: How Treatments Vary
After skin cancer, lung cancer is the second most common form of cancer that occurs in both men and women. There are two types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). About 85% of all lung cancers are non-small cell lung cancers.
Even though lung cancer detection tests have greatly improved, people still don’t always notice symptoms until their cancer has progressed to an advanced stage. But this doesn’t mean you don’t have hope for effective treatment. If your doctor diagnoses you with stage 3 or stage 4 lung cancer, you have options to help manage your condition. It’s important to understand the differences between the stages, as they’ll inform your treatment plan.
Lung Cancer Stages
In general, small cell lung cancers are classified according to whether or not they’ve spread outside the lungs. These types of lung cancers are grouped into two categories: limited stage, where no spread is evident, and extensive stage, where cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
In contrast, doctors classify non-small cell lung cancers using the TNM staging system:
Tumor (T): How big is the lung cancer tumor and where is it located inside the lungs?
Node (N): Has lung cancer spread to the lymph nodes?
Metastasis (M): Has the cancer metastasized, or spread, to other tissues throughout the body?
If your doctor diagnoses stage 1 or stage 2 lung cancer, that means the cancer itself is still isolated in the lungs and, in some cases, nearby lymph nodes. But if cancer spreads further, it’s considered either stage 3 or stage 4.
Treating Stage 3 Lung Cancer
Stage 3 lung cancer occurs when cancer cells spread beyond the nearby lymph nodes into the middle of the chest. If you have stage 3 lung cancer, your doctor is likely to recommend a combination of treatments to help kill cancer cells throughout your body. Your doctor may suggest:
Chemotherapy: Doctors inject powerful medications into your bloodstream. These medications travel throughout your body, killing cancer cells. In some cases, doctors prescribe chemotherapy to help manage certain symptoms of lung cancer, such as pain.
Radiation therapy: During radiation therapy, lung cancer tumors are exposed to high powered beams of radiation. Over time, radiation causes cancer cells to die. Radiation therapy may also be used to manage other cancer symptoms.
Surgery: In many cases, lung cancer tumors may be removed surgically. Your doctor may recommend removing all or part of your lung to completely eliminate cancer from your body.
In some cases, stage 3 patients aren’t healthy enough or don’t respond well to these therapies, so doctors may turn to immunotherapy as a first-line treatment. Immunotherapy is a newer technique that harnesses the power of your immune system to help certain immune system cells better identify and attack cancer cells.
Treating Stage 4 Lung Cancer
Doctors diagnose stage 4 lung cancer when cancer cells can be found in other organs and tissues throughout your body, such as your liver or brain. Stage 4 is the most advanced, or serious, type of lung cancer.
Stage 4 lung cancer treatment can look a lot like stage 3 lung cancer treatment. But because stage 4 lung cancer is the most advanced form of the disease, treatment isn’t usually limited to just chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. Instead, doctors often recommend additional treatment with innovative new medications designed to boost your body’s own cancer-fighting abilities. Although it’s unlikely these treatments will completely remove the cancer from your body, any therapy for stage 4 lung cancer is given with the goal of helping you live longer and relieving symptoms. It’s common for immunotherapy drugs to be prescribed for stage 4 lung cancer, as well as targeted therapies, the newest weapons in the fight against lung cancer. These medications target certain proteins and receptors on cancer cells and surrounding tissues to help stop tumor growth and limit the spread of lung cancer.
A lung cancer diagnosis may seem overwhelming and frightening, but there are still treatment options to help you manage the disease effectively. Your doctor will help you develop a treatment plan that’s based on the stage of the lung cancer, your overall health, and any symptoms you may experience. For many people, a combination of standard lung cancer treatments like chemotherapy or surgery, plus innovative new therapies like immunotherapy or targeted therapies, offers the best chance at a successful recovery.